A few weeks ago, I had an interesting experience while doing some research for this earlier post:
I Googled “Top female athletes in different sports”: I was trying to remember the name of the artist who did the photo series that focused on the different sizes, shapes, and forms of a diverse range of top athletes.
The very top result from my search was “The Top 50 Hottest Female Athletes of 2015,” followed by “Ultimate List of Hottest Female Athletes In The World,” followed closely by “Top 10 Sports With the Hottest Female Athletes” and “Sexiest Women in Sports.”
Ugh. Way to objectify female talent.
For a comparison, I searched for “Top male athletes in different sports.” There was only a single appearance of the words “hot” on my first page of results. Sure, that’s not zero, but it’s definitely a lot less than I got from the first search.
Interestingly, I did at that time find the website that I was looking for when I did the first search: it was linked to in an article about male athletes. The artist’s name, for those who are wondering, is Howard Schatz.
(I said “my first page” two paragraphs ago because of the Google’s search personalization affect our top hits: some of you may get different results than I did.)
I mean, obviously I don’t have an issue with men being described as fit, great, dominant, popular, and smart, nor do I have an issue with female beauty: I have an issue with the disparity.
This isn’t anything new: as far back as I can remember, most of the depictions of female athletes that I’ve seen in the media and advertising have been sexualized. For example:
I could give dozens—or hundreds, or thousands—of other examples, but I think you get the point.
And here’s the craziest thing about it: this approach to publicity doesn’t even work. This article on ESPN’s website refers to studies done by Janet Fink, a professor of sports management at UMass Amherst. In Fink’s own words:
Another thing we are finding, and this makes sense, is that each time a female athlete is pictured in a sexualized way, it diminishes the perception of her athletic ability….
The blame isn’t on the athlete. They’re playing the only game that exists. I think soon the marketing executives and mainstream media need to realize how the next generation wants to see its female athletes. And that’s simply as athletes.
Is this the most pressing issue in today’s world? No: from a global perspective, it is in many ways a bit of a luxury concern. And yet… that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Many people are affected by these portrayals, and this effects can take root at a very early age.
For example: this point has been further emphasized in the research of Elizabeth Daniels, a professor at Oregon State University. The results of her research are summarized in this article, which I am about to quote from extensively because these ideas are so relevant and thought-provoking:
The researchers found that the images of performance athletes positively impacts girls. When girls saw female athletes engaged in their sport, they described their own bodies in terms of their physical abilities (such as ‘I am strong’) instead of just their appearance. When they see these performance images, they are more motivated to play sports and be physically active themselves. Images of athletic women also impact boys. When college-aged boys see a performance athlete engaged in her sport, they tend to focus on her strength and physical competence rather than just her looks.
In contrast, girls do not like seeing the sexualized athletes. When they saw pictures of sexualized athletes, they were more likely to make negative comments about their own body’s appearance.
Boys as well were more likely to focus on the sexualized athlete’s appearance rather than her abilities. Focus groups of college students found that sexualized athletes are perceived as ‘hot,’ but seeing those images doesn’t make anyone want to watch more sports. A woman hard driving a basketball down a basketball court did.
With this increasing evidence that the sexualization of female athletes decreases respect for the athletes, results in decreased feelings of self-esteem and efficacy in girls, and fails to increase interest in the sporting events themselves, why does it continue?
There are any number of possible answers, but I’m guessing that the answer has something to do with habit and resistance to allowing deeply entrenched ways of viewing women to heal and change.
Not to mention maybe a touch of nervousness about what would happen if all women woke up to their strength and potential.
And those hurtful and widespead reasons behind the perpetual ubiquitous sexualization of women are precisely what make this matter worth challenging.
An interesting point was made in this article, which examines the differences between the photographs of men and women in the 2013 ESPN: The Body Issue:
While both male and female athletes are photographed naked, female athletes are often positioned in non-athletic, often sensual stances while male athletes are captured in ways which emphasize their athleticism.
I can think of a few exceptions in the 2015 issue, which had some great images of the super-awesome Amanda Bingson, as well as of Aly Raisman and Brittney Griner:
On the other hand, I did have to select certain of the images that were used for these women while omitting others that were certainly designed to emphasize things other than their athleticism.
Not to mention that the 2014 issue was steeped in the sexualization of its featured female athletes: just look at the difference between the portrayals of Venus Williams and Larry Fitzgerald:
I am by no means claiming that sexualization of male athletes doesn’t occur… but it certainly seems clear that it occurs less, and that there is a greater degree of focus on male athletes’ other attributes. As Christia Brown, PhD writes in this article on Psychology Today‘s website:
Because there is so little media coverage of female athletes, despite the many girls who play sports, how they are covered (or rather, not covered) is extremely important. Athletes who are women are typically converted from strong, fit, and athletic to sexual objects. They are rarely shown participating in their sport, more frequently scantily clad and passively posed. So, even though male athletes are also sexualized (think David Beckham in his underwear), men’s sheer amount of coverage overall means there is a lot more variability. Women, if covered at all by the media, are almost always sexualized.
I chose the top image for this piece partly because I admire Serena Williams immensely, and partly because I love the way that image captures her strength and deep awareness of her power. That’s what I like seeing, and what I hope to see more of… both in the media and in the world at large.
I don’t write this to rant and rage, but simply to draw attention to one way that the talent and strength of female athletes is disregarded and under-emphasized. I think it’s important for us to raise our voices when we see evidence of disparity and objectification: there is power in the moment of recognition, for that is the moment when change becomes possible.